Last month Guram Kashia, captain of the Dutch football club Vitesse Arnhem, donned a rainbow armband in a game in Almelo, Holland. The symbol was part of the Dutch Football Union’s pro-diversity campaign, but fans in Kashia’s native Georgia—where he also plays for the national team—were infuriated by the gesture.
“LGBT Kashia must be cut off from the Georgian team!” wrote one newspaper columnist. “Georgia’s football fathers should know that Georgian men will boycott the team if LGBT-Kashia dares to play in the national team jersey.”
More than two weeks after the October 15 match, tensions are still high: Dozens of protesters gathered outside the Georgian Football Federation headquarters late Tuesday night, shouting anti-gay slogans and burning a rainbow flag. Eight demonstrators were arrested for hooliganism.
Georgian March, an anti-LGBT, anti-immigration white nationalist group, has called for Kashia to be thrown off the national team because of his support for LGBT rights. While Kashia has endorsed equal rights, he hasn’t publicly discussed the armbands, which were worn by all captains in Holland as part of a “Coming Out Day” initiative.
Kashia, twice named footballer of the year, has received support from Georgian president Giorgi Margvelashvili and former Georgian Football Federation President Domenti Sichinava. On Facebook, fans changed their profile pictures in support of Kashia.
I feel honored to be awarded Best Georgian Player and Best Georgian Legionnaire of 2013 ! pic.twitter.com/OLVlXYNhyr
— Guram (@KashiaGuram) December 26, 2013
“Everyone has the right for freedom of expression,” Margvelashvili said in a statement. “We should respect human rights and liberties. I stand with the unanimous support that sporting society has expressed toward Guram Kashia.”
Georgia is one of only few countries in the former Soviet Union that prohibits discrimination against LGBT people and includes sexual orientation in its hate-crime criteria. But the influence of the Orthodox Church has made acceptance a slow slog: The country ranked as the third-most homophobic in the World Value Survey, with 93% of citizens opposed to having a gay neighbor.
In 2013, activists in a Pride rally in Tbilisi were severely beaten by an anti-gay mob. Last year, patrons at a gay-friendly cafe were attacked by neo-Nazis and a transgender woman was beaten to death with a concrete block.